Mor (Twin of Hazel or the Sea)

(Black Rock, County Kerry, Ireland. Photograph by K. Glavin)

“In the midst of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and concentrating in itself the psychical and magnetic influences from these three Celtic  lands, and from Celto-Saxon England too, lies the beautiful kingdom of the great Tuatha De Danann god, Manannan Mac Lir, or, as his loyal Manx subjects prefer to call him, Mannanan-Beg-Mac-y-Leir. In no other land of the Celt does Nature show so many moods and contrasts, such perfect repose at one time and at another time the mightiness of its unloosed powers, when the baffled sea throws itself angrily against a high rock bound coast, as wild and almost as weatherworn as the western coasts of Ireland and the Hebrides.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)

The Roots:

The twenty fifth, and final, letter of the Ogham is usually referred to as Mor, the sea.

There is much debate regarding this letter, however. The Ogham tract associates the final letter to the witch hazel[i] and lists the letter as Emancholl which apparently means “the twin” or “twin of Hazel.”[ii] This has usually been interpreted as the witch hazel or Beech; the Beech being the second choice because of the many similarities that are shared between the two trees.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets reminds us that the Witch Hazel was not indigenous to Europe and was likely not the original tree ascribed. He believes the letter should be attributed to the Scots Pine.

It was Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects that originally put forward the idea that this few represented the shirt of Manannan, which was found in the mythical crane-bag. Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle would later interpreted the meaning of this few as Mor, the Sea, as a result.

Most users of the Ogham – especially those who view the Ogham as a Tree Alphabet – do see this final letter as representing Mor, the Sea. Despite being a Tree Alphabet to most users of the Ogham, however, this is the one letter that deviates from the woodland theme.  It is almost always listed as representing the Sea.

Reconstructionists, on the other hand, tend to list this letter as Emancholl. These individuals do not view the Ogham as being a tree alphabet yet interpret the meaning of the few as being the twin of Hazel. As I have already mentioned, this would be the witch hazel or the Beech.

The Witch Hazel does not appear very often in the old tales. This is likely, as Pennick had already stated, due to the plant’s late arrival into this land of the Celts.

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, there is a story of a healer using three witch-hazel rods in a from of divination. He does this to reveal a sick person’s ailments. In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie the plant is used as protection against the fairies, alongside Rowan, and in conjunction with a Blackthorn staff and a bible.

The Beech is just as uncommon in these stories if not more so. Robert Graves in the White Goddess links the Beech tree to language, learning, literature and books. This is easy to verify due to the double meaning of Beech and Book in many languages including Old English and Old Norse[iii]. The tree is absent from the folktales, however, because the Beech is not native to Ireland and was only found in South England. Beech is not likely to have been the original tree associated with this letter either.

This leaves us looking backwards, towards that elusive “twin of Hazel” once more, looking for any clues. Perhaps we need to re-examine Coll, the Hazel, once more.

The most famous story of the Hazel in Irish Mythology is as an Otherworldly tree, or trees rather. These live on the other side of the veil. These trees provide the nuts of wisdom eaten by the salmon who in turn is eaten by Finn Mac Cool. The trees exist beneath the Sea and are said to be purple.

It is perhaps this reasoning, alongside Graves’ interpretation of Manannan’s shirt, which prompted Liz and Colin Murray to list this few as being Mor.

In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray link this few to the physical ocean itself, with travel, and to maternal links. They also claim that the letter represents “hidden knowledge that is only available when the moon and sea are full.”

John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook says that this few represents “beginnings, endings, and the influence of outside forces, symbolized by the sea; the arrival of a new factor, the workings of destiny.”

Nigel Pennick adds that this letter “goes beyond the conventional 24-fold divisions of things customary in the Northern Tradition (as, for example, the 24 hours in the day, the 24 half-months of the year, the 24 characters of the Welsh bardic alphabet, and the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark). Because of this, it [the 25th letter] is considered to be outside the conventions of the other 24 characters.”

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that this few is an “intensification of the other fiodh” She also believes, however, that the few can represent illness. She takes this second meaning from the word-Oghams found in the Ogham Tract[iv].

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “sign of a weary one” as representing “exhaustion.” Caitlin Mathews does not mention this letter in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents magic and hidden knowledge.” Ellison uses the Witch Hazel to represent this letter and says that the plant can be used in binding spells.

Mor, the sea, represents that which is other. It can represent the Sea itself or the Otherworld. The Sea and Manannan are one and the same. The Sea does not represent the god. The Sea is the god.

The Trunk:

“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” – Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)

As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”

The shirt of Manannan is the final item found in the crane-bag. The stories involving Manannan Mac Lir in Irish, Manx and Scottish mythology are many. He is usually associated with the Tuatha De Danaan, but is in fact from the older race of gods the Fomorians. Here are some excerpts from James MacKillop’s Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. I have placed them together as a single entry even though this is an extremely condensed version of the complete entry:

“Manannan Mac Lir: Principal sea-deity and also otherworldly ruler of Irish and Goidelic traditions. He is sometimes, but not usually, numbered as a lord of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through many texts over several centuries, some aspects of Manannán’s person remain constant. Although a shape-shifter, he is usually portrayed as a handsome and noble warrior, evocative of the classical gods Poseidon and Neptune, with whom he is often compared. He possesses a magical currach (‘the wave-sweeper’), but most often he travels over the waves with a horse, Énbarr or Aonbárr, usually in a chariot but sometimes on horseback. Nor can the armour of any enemy withstand his enchanted sword Frecraid [the answerer]. Among his supernatural powers is the ability to cast spells, féth fiada, which he teaches to the druids, and the ability to envelop himself in a mist that makes him invisible to his enemies, a facility shared by the Olympians in the Iliad. He often wears a great cloak that catches the light and can assume many colours, like the sea itself; with one sweep of it, Manannán can change destinies. An even more important possession is the crane bag that holds all his possessions, including language. He also owns birds, hounds, and magical pigs that can be eaten on one day but will be alive the next so that they can be slaughtered and eaten again. Among his wives are Fand [tears], herself a deity of water, and Aife, transformed into a crane by luchra, and from whose skin the crane bag was made. Although Manannán is not the central figure in any single narrative, his appearances dominate the action of many stories. No story tells of Manannán’s death, but allusions are made to his decline when he refuses to accept the succession of Bodb Derg. He is thought to have again assisted the Tuatha Dé Danann after their defeat by the Milesians when they dwindled into the small creatures who live under the earth. Prayers directed to him were thought to bring fishermen a bountiful catch.”

What seems most interesting to me is the succession of the items, or order, found in the crane-bag and the importance of the owners themselves. If we look at the King of Scotland, the King of Lochlain, Goibne, Asail and Manannan we see a procession of increasing power. The King of Scotland is, perhaps, the most mundane of the five males, while Manannan is the most Otherworldly and powerful. The items could also possibly be listed from semi ordinary (shears) to extremely powerful (the shirt of Manannan himself).

If we look at the symbols listed for each letter and their meanings we are perhaps given yet another clue. We begin with the Salmon, then we step into the Gold, then we use the Elbow, this is followed by the the food, Honey, and completed with the twin of hazel.

If the Salmon is the Grove, the Gold is the Fire, the Elbow is the work done transforming substances at the Forge and the Honey is the food of the gods, then we can only assume that the Twin of Hazel represents the ability to be in the Otherworld (by wearing Manannan’s shirt), as a result of having stepped through the previous symbols or states of being. Speaking more plainly, this procession of metaphors could perhaps be seen as a symbolic series of steps which were utilized in order to enter into the Otherworld. This could’ve even been, as unlikely as it may seem, a type of poet grading system – like the modern and generally accepted Bard, Ovate and Druid.

One must go into the Grove seeking wisdom like the Salmon. This is the step of intention and the tool seems to be the shears. Secondly, one must create a sacred space and build a there a fire. From here divination may also be engaged, as one’s sight is altered upon wearing the helmet. Next, one must do transforming work like that of Goibne the smith. Goibne works with the fire and alters the metals into powerful items with the aid of the hook. This is the state of magic making. Then, there is the eating of the honey, or sweet food, of the gods (like the regenerating pigs that are ready to be eaten at full tide). Once the food has been fully prepared, it is eaten and the transformation into a new being – or more powerful version of oneself – begins. Finally, one path taker can open their eyes to find that they are wearing the shirt of Manannan Mac Lir. They are then beneath the ocean in the Underworld, before the purple Twins of Hazel which had offered the wisdom to the Salmon that began the journey in the first place. It is at this place where we have finally realized our full journey and have stepped into the world of the others.

While my symbolic journey through the Forfeda is likely nothing more than my own musings or imagination, it brings me some sort of satisfaction to find that a thread does exists within these extra letters. I can then look back across the last half-year and see a continuous pathway through the forest that started at the very beginning, where Birch’s were swaying and whispering at the edge of the forest, beside the throne room of Manannan.

Eating the nuts of wisdom, I then discover that the journey never ends, it only begins anew and fresh.

There before me is the Birch once more.

The Foliage:

Samhain is a time to honour those who have passed before us, and those other ancestors long dead who we have never known on any conscious level. It’s a time to give thanks for all those things that we have, and a time to be thankful for all of those things that we are about to receive during the coming year. It is also a time to thank the spirits that have aided us over the past year and to make petitions against tricksters who may wish to bring chaos into our lives during the days ahead. In short, it is a time where the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and a place where messages of any kind may be more easily heard from either side of this Celtic twilight.

Most of the sources that I referenced in this blog are writers that are no longer amongst the living. Colin Murray (no image attached) passed away in the eighties as did Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. W.Y Evans Wentz who wrote the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries passed on in 1965, as did Sir James Frazer in 1941. Lady Gregory, author of Gods and Fighting Men, died in 1932. Alexander Carmichael (no image attached) who brought us the Carmina Gadelica passed away in 1912. Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and author of Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, died in relative poverty in 1896. Lady Charlotte Guest who is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion passed away in 1895.

I would like to take this time to honour some of these men and women who have preserved our past and allowed me to research the Ogham and the forest lore of the Celts. All of the images below are taken from Wikipedia except for the drawing of Lady Wilde which was taken from sacredtexts.com.

(Joseph Campbell)

(Robert Graves)

(W.Y. Evans-Wentz)

(Sir James Frazer)

(Lady Gregory)

(Lady Wilde)

(Lady Charlotte Guest)

“There was always an element of fear and trepidation about this night – the eve before Samhain- and also one of expectancy. When the dead were abroad, certain kinds of divination could be practiced, which asked questions of the ancestors.” – Caitlin Mathews(The Celtic Spirit)


[i] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[ii] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[iv] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

Uillend (Elbow or Honeysuckle)

(photograph by Sannse)

“Turn hither, O Fergus my master!” he cried. Fergus did not answer, for he heard not. He spoke again, “Turn hither, Fergus my master!” he cried; “and if thou turn not, I will grind thee as a mill grinds fresh grain; I will wash thee as a cup is washed in a tub; I will bind thee as the woodbine binds the trees; I will pounce on thee as hawk pounces on fledglings!” – Cattle Raid of Cooley (1914 Joseph Dunn translation)

The Roots:

Uillend is the third Forfeda and the twenty third letter of the Ogham. It is usually ascribed to the Honeysuckle which is also known as the Woodbine.

Liz and Colin Murray said that the Honeysuckle represented hidden secrets[i]. “Whereas the ivy is concerned with the search for self, the Honeysuckle shows the way in which to achieve this – the special dance or step that leads into the labyrinth of inner knowledge.”  The Murrays come to this conclusion based on the bird Ogham and the association of the letter to the lapwing[ii]. Interestingly, though, the Murrays used the incorrect Ogham symbol for the Honeysuckle. The hook is generally used and not what Robert Graves calls “the bones of Assail’s swine” which is the superimposed X that reaches out to the side of the line. The “hook,” they claimed, was representative of the Beech tree. For this reason the order that they placed the Forfeda in is different from many of the other lists. The Murrays’ order matches the order in which the Forfeda appear within Finn’s Wheel[iii]. Knowing this one tidbit can help identify an Ogham users school of thought. The Murray’s order is the adaption that embraces the Robert Graves’ philosophy found in the White Goddess, but takes it one step further.

John Michael Greer, in the Druid Magic Handbook, clearly subscribes to this order. Many other druids do as well. This is a testament of respect to the late Colin Murray and to Liz Murray as well. As usual, John Michael Greer adds his own deeply reflective insight by adding that Uillend represents “the influences of the subtle and seemingly insignificant, hidden messages.”

Many pagan users of the Ogham then take this one step further and create their own list of Ogham meanings without any foundation in Celtic knowledge. This can sometimes be a slippery slope as other mythologies are brought in (the common Odin-Ash misunderstanding traced to the mistranslated Prose Eda) or other gods and goddesses added from Greece or Egypt or sometimes even North America. It is easy to forget -when working with such a system- that if it truly is a Magical Alphabet, then this is a sacred language taken from a cultural context which is already imbued with its own spirits and divine beings that already exist within that context! Druids understand this and research the Celtic roots from a modern perspective.

Robert Graves and the Murrays studied these myths[iv] in depth as well. It is sad, then, that we are often quicker to take from another people’s beliefs than we are to try to learn from them. Examples of this type of cultural foraging exists all over the world. I am truly conflicted on this one, however. I often see this ‘cultural stripping’ from such a harsh place as being the continuation of the ethnocide attempts against the Irish stemming from previous eras, regardless of how innocent it may seem by naive practitioners with good intentions. On a good day, however, I can see the mutual love of the trees and what they represent by almost anyone who is attracted to the Ogham[v] including those modern Neopagan users. What makes me worry, truly, is that these innocent promotions of the Ogham have been bastardized into something that is more commonly seen in books and on the internet than anything that represents what the Celts actually believed. I often wonder if it’s too late.

At the other far end of the spectrum we have Eryn Rowan Laurie. She is a highly respected Celtic reconstructionist who comes from a historical, cultural, and magical perspective. She lists this few as representing the Elbow. She claims the meanings of the few are flexibility, change and measurement.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman says that the word-Ogham “woodbine the strong” represents “discovery.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks uses the letter to represent the direction of west.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents “drawing things together and binding.” Ellison also says that Honeysuckle can be used in protection spells.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets also mentions the Honeysuckle to Beech transformation. He states that regardless of the tree association the few has certain magical characteristics. These are, “hardness and resistance, the solidity of knowledge and tried-and-tested actions. It refers to the solidity of ancient wisdom, the cultural or physical foundation which must be in place before any constructions are made, either in the physical or the figurative meaning.”

The Honeysuckle rarely shows up in the old texts. The quote at the top of the page taken from the Cattle Raid of Cooley is the only instance that I am currently aware of where it makes an appearance in a witchy-spell within the myths or folklore. This is besides the Battle of the Trees, of course. “In shelter live, the privet[vii] and the woodbine, and the ivy in the season.”

I personally believe –nerdy conspiracy theorist that I am- that many of the monks recording the old texts still had one foot in the old beliefs. This seems apparent when reading what they left for us. The older myths especially are the stories and beliefs that would have been lost without them. I believe there’s much speculative evidence suggesting that the monks hid information within these stories. From this perspective, these two instances of the “tree” being mentioned would suggest that the Honeysuckle can be used for binding and for “shelter” or protection.

The following quote, taken from a much later time, seems to validate this:

“An old man in Uist said that he used to swim to an islet in a lake in his neighbourhood for ivy, woodbine, and mountain ash. These, sometimes separately and sometimes combined, he twined into a three-plied ‘cuach,’ ring, which he placed over the lintel of his cow house and under the vessels in his milk-house, to safeguard his cows and his milk from witchcraft, evil eye, and murrain[viii].” – Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Woodbine and Rowan appear together in James Frazer’s the Golden Bough and are used in much the same way in Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland. Likewise, Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Vol. IV by J.F. Campbell which was written in 1890 also says that the Honeysuckle can be used as a protection charm against evil.

In Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, written in 1901, we find another casual mention of Honeysuckle. The story of the Habitrot, mentioned previously, says that this particular fairy knoll was visited by a bride and existed in the shade beneath the Honeysuckle and the wild roses. One could also word this as being “sheltered,” or protected, by these plants. These are some interesting correlations found throughout the old stories.

Uillend, or Honeysuckle, is a few of protection and binding. It represents subtle understandings and the foundations needed in order to find the self, which is the greatest hidden secret of all. Ultimately, this few is said to be one of flexibility and sweetness. Despite its appearance in myth, Uillend does not seem to have any direct connections to the individuals of legend or folklore except for the Habitrot.

The Trunk:

“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” – Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)

As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are  listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”

While Goibne, or Goibniu, may not be as mysterious a figure as the King of Lochlain his hook certainly is. When does a smith use a hook? Is this hook even used as a smith’s tool at all? Why does Manannan have it?

The following quotes illustrate Goibniu’s attributes and characteristics. They are taken from Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire written in 1905:

“Let it be granted, for the sake of peace, that Goibniu was only a man; none the less, his name was known to be uncommonly effective in an incantation.”

“Goibniu, in addition to his original character as the divine smith and sorcerer, gained a third reputation among the Irish as a great builder and bridge-maker. As such he is known as the Gobhan Saer, that is, Goibniu the Architect, and marvellous tales, current all over Ireland attest his prowess.”

Goibniu then boasts of his weapon making abilities when he is asked how he can fight the Fomorians. These boasts later seem to have much merit. The Fomorians launch an assassination attempt on him.

“I,” said Goibniu the Smith, “will replace every broken lance and sword with a new one, even though the war last seven years. And I will make the lances so well that they shall never miss their mark, or fail to kill. Dulb, the smith of the Fomors, cannot do as much as that. The fate of the fighting will be decided by my lances.”

“The Fomors decided to send someone to discover the secret of these prodigies. The spy they chose was Ruadan, the son of Bress and of Brigit, daughter of the Dagda, and therefore half-giant and half-god. He disguised himself as a Tuatha Dé Danann warrior, and went to look for Goibniu. He found him at his forge, together with Luchtainé, the carpenter, and Credné, the bronze-worker. He saw how Goibniu forged lance-heads with three blows of his hammer, while Luchtainé cut shafts for them with three blows of his axe, and Credné fixed the two parts together so adroitly that his bronze nails needed no hammering in. He went back and told the Fomors, who sent him again, this time to try and kill Goibniu.

He reappeared at the forge, and asked for a javelin. Without suspicion, Goibniu gave him one, and, as soon as he got it into his hand, he thrust it through the smith’s body. But Goibniu plucked it out, and, hurling it back at his assailant, mortally wounded him. Ruadan went home to die, and his father Bress and his mother Brigit mourned for him, inventing for the purpose the Irish “keening”. Goibniu, on the other hand, took no harm.”

Goibniu is the possessor of a magic cauldron[ix]. It is this item that he uses to give immortality to the Tuatha de Danaan.

“Thus the people of the goddess Danu preserved their immortal youth, while the ale of Goibniu the Smith-God bestowed invulnerability upon them.”

This collection of quotes, while all being taken from the work by Charles Squire, sporadically reappear in other texts as well. The appearance of Goibniu in these myths does lend us some interesting insights. He’s a magical smith, yet he also possesses the means to give immortality through the drinking of his ale. He was considered so powerful, in fact, that his name alone is used as an incantation.

So what do we know about Goibniu’s hook? We do not know anything. We can only speculate.

One is immediately drawn to the fact that Goibne is a smith, and might then conclude that the tool, this hook, is used at his forge. No smithy tools are usually referred to as hooks, however. Before we get ahead of ourselves and consider this possibility further let us first take a look at other hook-like items that could have been being referred to in these texts.

In the old stories we find mentioned both bill hooks and reaping hooks. These are the hand held scythe and the sickle. While both evolved into various weapons, there’s no real reason to believe that Goibne was a farmer or would have used a peasant’s weapon when he could have forged a magical weapon of any type. This possibility seems pretty easy then easy to dismiss.

Cauldrons had large hooks that held them over a fire. Would a cauldron full of ale need to be heated? The answer would be no. However, what is translated as ale is just as likely to have been any liquid concoction that was served. Suddenly the story of magical ale does not seem so impossible any more. The boast of invulnerability from Goibniu and the immortal youth of the drink of Danu suddenly remind us of the ancient, and still thriving, beauty and health industries. Many of our modern “discoveries” in these industries turn out to be very natural remedies indeed. One has only to consider the many mud and water treatments available for beauty as well as the various means implored to lengthen life. Boasts were also often extreme in Irish mythology. Thus, invulnerability and immortality are just as likely to be exaggerations for the protection against disease, age, or represent some sort of beauty enhancement.

I am also quickly brought back to the main characteristic of the crane bag. The items disappeared when the tide was ebbing and reappeared at full tide. Could these items, then, be in the possession of the owner at all times yet exist in both realms simultaneously at full tide?  When one considers the magic drawn from the flux of the seasons, certain times of the day and from certain points in the moon cycles the tide being full could possibly offer to us another possible clue. Could this high tide be that time in which the magical items were imbued with power and were then existing with one foot in each of those worlds? This would mean that Manannan would be blessing these items, from the crane bag, during the full tide and not owning them as originally thought. Perhaps these can only be used then?

Regardless, if Finn Mac Cool was a carrier of these items then perhaps they themselves were only representative of certain types of power, or magic, and not the physical objects that we may have originally thought? This is one possible theory. I have no evidence that there is any truth to this consideration, though. I can merely ponder.

(Fire Forge. Photograph by Tobias R, Metoc)

I asked Jay O’ Scalleigh, podcaster of Witchery of One [x], fellow pagan, blogger and blacksmith, if there are any smith tools that might be seen as hooks. His answer shed some possible light on this mystery.

My gut tells me that it could be a tool used to remove ‘clinkers’ from the forge….but that may be just as right or wrong as every other guess out there. Also, clinkers occur in coal forges and someone like Goibniu would most likely have used charcoal…not sure if charcoal produces clinkers.”

I think Jay may be onto something here. According to Wikepedia, coal was first used in London by smiths around 1257-1259 while building the Westminster Abbey[xi]. This use of coal would have likely spread rapidly throughout the isles. The Book of Ballymote was written in 1390 or 1391. The references to the crane bag’s contents seems to appear at an even later date. In the Crane Bag and other disputed subjects Robert Graves uses an Ann Ross quote that references a 1904 MacNeill quote to describe the items. The other place that I have found the same crane bag items listed is in Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, also from 1904. Goibniu could have had a hook to pull out clinkers from the coal by the time the legend was recorded. These stories do clearly evolve over time. It would also seem, at least from the one conversation that I have provided the link to below[xii], that charcoal can produce clinkers. It would then appear that Jay’s theory is a solid one either way.

The third possibility to consider is the fish hook. This is a consideration made more valid because the item is in Manannan’s possession. There are no stories of Goibniu fishing that I am aware of, however, that would give considering this particular item any real validation.

If the Forfeda are also map markers in the forest then what could this elusive hook be representing at all?

Whether the hook holds up the cauldron or, more likely, pulls the clinkers from the smith’s fire may not matter as much as it may have originally appeared. The cauldron and the forge are both magical devices inspired by fire. This few is often drawn as a spiral which is a Celtic symbol of magic.

The Ogham Tract -word oghams- also said that this few represents the Elbow. The elbow could represents physical work.

I would hazard a guess that this few is represented by Uillend the Honeysuckle, or the elbow, as being a place where the spirits are summoned and worked with. It is from this place in the forest, that witchery and magic weaves reality.

Due to the seemingly missing records, this speculation will likely never be more than an educated guess. I would enjoy to hear any other theories out there, however.

…A big thank you to Jay O’ Scalleigh for all of the blacksmith information and for sharing his own intuitive workings with Uillend: There was no way that I would have found this information without his help.:-)

The Foliage:

If you have read this far, you are likely to have an interest in using the Ogham for divination purposes or are a magical worker of some sort. Whether you are a shaman, druid, witch, hybrid, or something else all together, the Ogham may call to you.

In the earlier days of the blog I challenged any reader, who may have not already been doing so, to look for the deeper symbolism found within the Celtic stories.

I now challenge anyone who is not already doing so, to take a look at some of these old stories in a new way, looking for that knowledge that is hidden in plain view. The original historians, the monks, most definitely seem to have been leaving information they thought was going to be lost before the reader. As already stated, I believe much of the stories are riddles in code. This hidden knowledge is then available for those who choose to look.

Suddenly, such a confusing poem as the Battle of the Trees, for example, seems to make a lot more sense as the trees of the Ogham are suddenly not just seen as a means of divination.

The Ogham also becomes a magical system.

“Goibniu who was not impotent in smelting… of painful plague died Goibnenn the smith.” – Book of Invasions (R.S. Macalister’s 1941 translation)


[i] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] See previous post.

[iv] Both also make the Ygdrassil/Odin error.

[v] The Ogham Tract lists trees for each letter but is not necessarily a tree alphabet.

[vii] This is a shrub of the olive family that produces poisonous berries.

[viii] Disease of cattle.

[ix] Charles Squire does not use the name cauldron but it seems to be implied.

[x] http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/index.phppost_category=podcasts
also his blog at http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/

Ohn (Gorse or Broom)

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day was killed in the furze; Although he be little his honour is great, so, good people, give us a treat. – Peter Ellis (the Druids)[i]

 

The Roots:

The seventeenth letter of the Ogham is Ohn, which is usually listed as the Gorse. According to Robert Graves, some lists use Scotch Broom instead[ii].

Gorse is also known as Sea Gorse, Furz, Furze, Furse or Whin. It is a close relative to the Broom plant belonging to the same tribe Genisteae, with the main differing quality being its sharp thorns or spikes. In Cad Goddeu –the Battle of the Trees- Broom even seems to become the parent of the Gorse -within the poem- when the story says that, “The Brooms with their offspring [arrived?]: the Furz was not well behaved, until he was tamed…”  Interestingly, though unrelated, the “Gorse” is also said to be great in battle elsewhere in the same poem[iii].

James Frazer, in the Golden Bough, says that in folk rituals the Furz and the Broom were often interchangeable. This may be why some of the Ogham lists use Broom instead of Gorse. It may also be why Robert Graves left Broom out of his Ogham list as the plant for Ngetal[iv] and instead replaced it with the Reed Grass. Perhaps he thought that the Broom and Gorse were too similar to one another to each have a letter in the Ogham? Another possibility that I have mentioned before is that he may have chosen this placement more to support his tree calendar theory than for any other historical or mythological significance.

Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle said that Gorse represented the collecting together of various objects for ones journey. They compared the Gorse to the magpie, which is a highly intelligent bird believed to collect shiny objects for its nest.

John Michael Greer agrees saying that Ohn is the few of attracting, of combination, possibility, growth and potential[v].

Nigel Pennick also believes similarly that Ohn is the letter of continuous fertility, collecting and dispersal[vi].

Robert Graves reminds us that Furz is one of the very first flowers to be visited by bees collecting nectar and pollen in the spring. It is a plant, he claims, that is also good to use against witches[vii].

Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Gorse is the plant for foundations and the journey. Ohn is also related to ones path, choices, direction and intention. The energy of the Broom plant, on the other hand, is of healing and of wounding[viii].

The Broom is listed in the Ogham tract as associated to healing and physicians. The Gorse is associated to the wheel of the chariot, and by extension to travelling[ix].

Both the Broom and the Gorse have strong connections to witches and to the fairies. The Gorse in particular has a connection with the Cailleach, the great hag Goddess who is sometimes named the Queen of the Fairies.

Ohn is the few of journeys and of the preparation for the mission at hand. The Gorse speaks of darker tools and attitudes needed to succeed upon the path, while the Broom reminds us that we must be ready to heal and create if we are called upon to do so.

The Trunk:

According to James Frazer in the Golden Bough, “old straw, furz or broom was burned in Scotland for Beltane fires “a little after sunset.” Broom was also burned to repel witches.

The connection of Gorse, or Furz, and Broom to witches, fairies and protection seems to radiate throughout many myths. It is never entirely clear however if the plants are beneficial or harmful. Perhaps they are both.

The Golden Bough tells us that Gorse was burned as a sort of smudge to bless and protect the cattle from witches on the Isle of Mann.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911, we are told that Furz fires were sometimes built as a gift to the fairies to keep them warm. The book also says that any gifts of gold given to a person by the fairy may turn to Furz blossoms if that person told another of the source of their newfound wealth.That was if their telling didn’t outright kill them!  Eryn Rowan Laurie also speaks of the gold found beneath the Gorse.

The same text gives us a story from the Isle of Mann. There was apparently a “strange woman” who was seen to have materialized within the Gorse bush and walked over it, “where no person could walk”, and touched one of the cows that belonged to the witness. A few days later the heifer fell over dead. Witches and fairies seemed to have always been after the cows in those days, as well as the milk and butter that they produced, as this was the wealth of the Celtic ancestors. It seems to have been a common belief that witches and fairies coveted this wealth.

In the Fairy legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825, we are also told of an apparition that growled like “burning Gorse.”

The Broom plant seems to be a little lighter.

The most famous story involving Broom was previously covered when we discussed Duir, the Oak, and that is the story of Blodeuwedd, “flower face.” She was created by Gwydion and Math to be the wife of Lleu who had a curse placed on him, by his mother, to wed no mortal woman. This story is found in the Mabinogion. The plants used to create Blodeuwedd are listed as the flowers of Oak, meadowsweet and Broom. She was created from vegetation and was thus not mortal and a suitable wife for Lleu. In this highly symbolic and charged tale Blodeuwedd ends up betraying Lleu with Gronw Pebyr, a passing hunter. Gronw is eventually killed and Blodeuwedd is made into the owl, a bird which is hated by all, by Gwydion to punish her.

(E. Wallcousins. From Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire, 1905)

While the Broom’s most famous story is one of creating a beautiful woman the Gorse’s most relevant tale seems to speak of old age, death and destruction.

A most interesting story is told of the Cailleach in the Carmina Gadelica that relates to the Gorse. The Cailleach, the great hag, is often seen as the goddess of winter. In the first week of April she would use her magic wand to keep the vegetation from growing by swinging it back and forth over the struggling signs of new growth. Eventually, she would be overpowered by the elements of spring. She would eventually admit defeat and fly off in a rage screaming:

“It escaped me below, it escaped me above,

It escaped me between my two hands,

It escaped me before, it escaped me behind,

It escaped me between my two eyes,

It escaped me down, it escaped me up,

It escaped me between my two ears,

It escaped me thither, it escaped me hither,

It escaped me between my two feet.

I throw my druidic evil wand

Into the base of a withered hard Whin bush,

Where shall not grow ‘fionn’ nor ‘fionnidh,’

But fragments of grassy froinnidh.”

This chant extracted from Visions of the Cailleach by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine gives the reason why other plants do not grow beneath the Gorse[x]. It is also a clue as to the harnessing of the powers of winter, to witches to come, through the use of a wand of Gorse.

Whether the Gorse or Broom is seen as either positive or negative, it is clear that these plants are flora of a once highly respected magical tradition.

The Broom seems to offer wealth, healing, and manifestation.

The Gorse or Furz seems to offer wealth, destruction, and protection from manifestation.

Both plants could have been seen as powerful allies, upon the road that one was to journey upon.

The Foliage:

When one considers that the Gorse and the Broom both grew, and continue to grow, out in the open and needed to be tamed -by our ancestors- then the parallels between the two plants becomes apparent. Both plants were often burnt back by shepherds and farmers to preserve the land from being overwhelmed. Gorse on the one hand had spiky thorns while the Broom was softer but just as prolific.

In the Ogham Tract[xi] the trees and plants of the Ogham are listed according to their rank. Some trees are seen as chieftain trees, some are seen as peasant trees and some are seen as shrub trees. Interestingly enough, the Furz is listed as a chieftain tree but -as Whin- is listed again as a peasant tree[xii]. It is also assumed that Broom is listed as a shrub tree in this particular order by its absence. Under Brehon law[xiii], however, both the Broom and the Furz are given the lowest rank of “bramble” trees.

The listing of Gorse as a chieftain plant during these earlier times probably had a great deal to do with the respect that was given to it. There seems to be a common theme in the tree and plant mythology of the Celtic ancestors and that was that the thorn plants –Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Blackberry- were protected by the fairies and thus were sacred, feared, or both.

According to Eryn Rowan Laurie the Gorse was used in some parts of Ireland instead of the Hawthorn as the May bush. This could have only been possible if the Gorse was a greatly respected plant of the times, for it to have been used in this way.

Unrecognized and powerful, like the ivy plant, the Gorse and Broom are considered in many places to be invasive and aggressive plants that threaten the native growth of local flora. Today these weeds have sought out the attention of millions of dollars in a bid to remain acknowledged and recognized.

Perhaps, this is merely a coincidence.

“Our outer world is progressively diminished and corrupted by abuse of technology, greed and indifference to the welfare of other orders of life, and romantic adventurers often complain that there is nothing left to explore, no liberating challenge or experience. But liberation comes from within, both within ourselves and within the Underworld that is the original source and image for our planet.” –R.J. Stewart(Earth Light, 1992)



[i] Another version of this old Irish song is found in the Golden Bough by James Frazer.

[ii] The White Goddess.

[iii] D.W. Nash translation. Ibid.

[iv] Ngetal is the thirteenth letter of the Ogham.

[v] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[vi] Magical Alphabets.

[vii] The White Goddess.

[viii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[ix] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[x] A similar tale found in the same book has the Cailleach throwing a black hammer instead of a wand, and having it land beneath the Holly tree instead of the Gorse. Again, this is the reason given for the scant vegetation found beneath the Holly.

[xi] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[xii] Robert Graves believed that this was a mistake and should have been Holly instead.

[xiii] Irish law. The White Goddess.

Ngetal (Reed Grass)

“Ngetal is the month when the terrible roar of breakers and the snarling noise of pebbles on the Atlantic seaboard fill the heart with terror, and when the wind whistles dismally through the reed-beds of the rivers. In Ireland the roaring of the sea was held to be prophetic of a king’s death.” – Robert Graves (The White Goddess)

The Roots:

The reed is the most commonly associated plant to this thirteenth letter, Ngetal. The Ogham Tract[i] lists Ngetal as either the broom or the fern –and not as the reed- so this letter often causes confusion.

It seems to have been Robert Graves that left us with the association of Ngetal to Reed Grass. This may have been to more easily associate each of the Ogham letters to the corresponding line found in the Song of Amergin -as he made his poetic comparison- or to perhaps make a stronger argument that the Ogham was once used as a Celtic tree calendar[ii]. It may have even been possible that he did not want two such similar plants as the broom and the gorse –found later in the Ogham- to both be a part of the
same list of letters[iii]. This of course is simply my own speculation. We may never know why Graves chose to list the thirteenth letter of the Ogham as the Reed, but it seems to have been further promoted by most writers that followed him.

Eryn Rowan Laurie, along with other reconstructionists, list this letter as being associated with the broom plant, but as noted many times before she does not see the Ogham as a tree alphabet at all but similar to the runes instead.

Nowadays, most do see Ngetal as being the Reed. We must remember that the Ogham’s association with trees was likely initially mnemonic only. However, we do know that the Ogham was used for magic and likely for divination, but we cannot know for certain how the letters were utilized at all[iv]. The tree alphabet has become a tool used in such a fashion in modern days as it may have became over time a tool of power to the ancestors as well. For these reasons the reed seems to fit most comfortably within the list of the plants found in the Ogham today.

The reed is obviously not a tree at all. The Celts had many uses for the plant however. They often used it in the thatching in of the roof, which would have been the final step in completing any dwelling construction. The reed would also have likely been used for flooring material in winter. The reed rod was a type of measuring stick used by the ancestors as well[v].

James Frazer speaks of the king with the reed sceptre in the Golden Bough showing us that the reed is no ordinary plant. According to Graves the reed was used to make arrow shafts and this may be why it is named in the Battle of the Trees as the “swift pursuing” one[vi]. Liz and Colin Murray also associate the reed to the arrow and say that it is the letter of “direct action”, “overcoming obstacles on a journey”, and can be used as a spiritual weapon[vii].

Robert Graves further claims that the reed was a tree to Irish poets[viii]. The research of Nigel Pennick gives us compelling reasons to believe this. Pennick reminds us that the pen of Irish scribes was composed of reed and that, “The reed was also the material from which a sort of paper or papyrus, known to the Welsh as plagawd was made”[ix].  The reed was also used for braiding together baskets and could then be synonymous with Celtic knot artwork.

Ngetal in the Ogham Tract is also considered to be a few of healing. This listing –though more literally being those powers of the broom plant- is made by many Ogham teachers including John Michael Greer.

The reed is also associated with music. Historically it was used in wind instruments near the mouth piece to help create the music sound. This piece of the instrument is still called the reed today. A type of Asian giant reed is usually the preferred material for this construction nowadays, but some instruments still use the traditional reed grass[x]. It should also be noted that the reed sometimes appears as its own musical instrument in Celtic fairly tales.

Ngetal, the reed, is associated with higher learning, advancement, music, healing, action and art. It is this few that brings to us all of those gifts that makes us that most unique of animals.

The thirteenth letter, the reed, is the few of being divinely human.

The Trunk:

It is said that the Cluricaune, an Irish fairy being, rides the reed through the air[xi].

The Cluricaune looks like a little old man appearing in “antiquated dress.” He is usually found wearing a pea-green coat with large buttons and oversized shiny shoe buckles.

The Cluricaune is often “detested due to his evil disposition[xii].” People will often try to use him and become his master, but he can be cunning and will try to come out ahead. The Cluiricaune can sometimes be startled as he’s making shoes. He has an incredible ability to vanish, however. It was believed a person could make the Cluricaune tell them where hidden treasure was, or get from him a “magic coin.”

The Cluricaune apparantly likes to smoke and drink; making his beer out of heather. The Cluricaune smokes from a small kind of pipe which is sometimes still found by farmers as they plough their fields.

The Cluricaune is a trickster, but he is loyal to one particular family and will stay so as long as a single family member survives. Despite being a mischievous fellow, he usually has a degree of respect for “the master of the house.” The Cluricaune will protect the home and ward off unseen dangers. He can be extremely upset if he is forgotten. however.

Like other fairy beings, the Cluricaune likes gifts to be left out for him. His connection to wine cellars seems a little suggestive. It is not unheard of for a Cluricaune to let the wine run out of a cask if he deems the household occupants covetous. The Cluricaune was basically a spirit world mobster.

The Cluricaune is said to be as, “ugly as a shrivelled apple”, but he whistles at his work which he seems to enjoy immensely.

He rides through the air with “great velocity” on a reed shaft from place to place. It is said that those who ride with him may take days or even weeks to return home.

(Cluricaune. Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland)

The stories of the Cluricaune remind us to be mindful of the spirits and to leave gifts for them. Whether these tales are contrived or whether they have a basis in truth -however unlikely or Otherworldly this may seem- there is always something to take away from these old stories.

Why a reed? If the story’s make believe then what’s the purpose of the reed in the tale if we are aware of the importance of plants to the ancestors? Why not another tree or branch? If the story does have a metaphysical foundation then what powers does the Cluricaune find within the reed? Is flight literal -or more likely- something far more metaphoric?

There may be more to the reed than meets the eye.

The Foliage:

Reed grass may have an important role to play in the future of water treatment and organic sewage management[xiii].

The reed absorbs impurities from water and is used in small neighbourhood treatment ponds or marshes. “Treatment ponds are small versions of constructed wetlands which uses reed beds or other marshland plants to form an even smaller water treatment system”[xiv]. Micro organisms that live on the roots of the plant -or in the bed litter- treat the water that runs slowly through them.

The Stanley Park Storm Water Treatment Wetland in Vancouver is just such a project. The wetland was created to deal with the runoff of polluted rain water from the Stanley park causeway and from the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The water was originally allowed to flow freely into the streams, Lost Lagoon, Beaver Lake, and into the Pacific Ocean itself[xv]. Now it is treated in a holistic manner to lessen any impact that may be caused from the runoff.

The marshland, “Acts as a settling pond, natural treatment and filtration system for storm-water run off”. Large particles are first captured by a filtration system, then sunlight and micro organisms effectively tear apart contaminants. Slowly the water passes through deeper pools -and marsh staging areas- where reed grass and other native wetland plants break the contaminants down even further. The goal of the project is to, “Keep storm water contaminants in a controlled area so as to protect the surrounding area”[xvi].

The process of using reed beds for sewage treatment is actually quite similar. The water moves through the reed grass and the microorganisms that live in the roots and the litter break down the contaminants while utilizing the nutrients that are being offered in return.

The reed, as it turns out, is a very understated tree after all.

Not only is the reed a steed of the fairy kingdom, it is the bringer of music and healing, art and kingship, learning, advancement and action and it even possesses the ability to aid in the healing of the land.

Ngetal, the reed, the thirteenth few of the Ogham, is the teacher that always was and always will be. It grows just beyond the shore, and in doing so, exists partially in one world, and partially in the next.

“The basket greatly resembles in its functions a ‘portable cauldron’ and leads, like it, in the development of the Grail… The basket is one of the thirteen treasures of Britain and is often an object of gifts. The meaning of abundance is represented in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’. In order to win Olwen, Culhwch had, among other things, to obtain the basket of Gwyddneu Garanhir. Everyone would find in it the food he wished, even if the whole world gathered around him.” – Sabine Heinz (Celtic Symbols)


[i] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[ii] For further discussion please refer to the White Goddess. Graves makes a complicated conclusion that the Song of Amergin and the Ogham were both devices referring to a Celtic tree calendar and to each other. Many accept the Celtic Tree calendar as fact however unlikely the reality of this notion is to scholars. I plan on talking about this more in the future.

[iii] The Broom and the Gorse are both non-trees already and would probably have similar or identical meanings in the Ogham as they are similar looking and are very closely related. We will return to these plants when we cover the seventeenth letter of the Ogham, Ohn.

[iv] If at all possible read Charles Graves’ (Robert’s grandfather) On the Ogam Beithluisnin which lists the appearance of the Ogham in many myths and legends. The copy I own is found in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Mathews.

[v] Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick.

[vi] This is Robert Graves’ version, there are many different translations.

[vii] The Celtic Tree Oracle

[viii] The White Goddess

[ix] Magical Alphabets

[x] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_(instrument)

[xi] Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Eyewitness Handbooks: Herbs by Lesley Bremness.

[xiv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_bed

[xv] http://newcity.ca/Pages/lostlagoon.html

[xvi] Ibid.

Gort (Ivy Vine)

 

“Although it grows upon other plants or on the walls of buildings, the ivy must remain rooted in the ground in order to survive. But it is a tree of transformation, starting as a small, weak, herb-like plant, which finally, after centuries of growth, becomes an enormously thick, woody, serpentine tree in its own right.” – Nigel Pennick (Magical Alphabets)

The Roots:

Gort is the common association for the twelfth letter of the Ogham. Gort however does not literally mean ivy, but that of a tilled field. In the scholar’s primer Gort is also associated with green pastures, corn, and cornfields, as well as to ivy[i].

Most do associate Gort with the ivy plant, however. Liz and Colin Murray equate the ivy with the, “spiralling search for self”.  Stephanie and Philip Carr Gomm further add to this by saying that the ivy is comparable to the labyrinth in relation to ones personal search through the mysteries of life and death. They also explain that there is a strong association of the ivy plant to the snake, the egg, and to the god Cernnunnos[ii].

Robert Graves calls ivy, “The tree of resurrection”, and in doing so seems likely to agree with the Carr Gomms.

John Michael Greer calls Gort, “A few of tenacious purpose and indirect progress, symbolized by the ivy bush; a winding but necessary path and entanglements that cannot be avoided.”

Where as Eryn Rowan Laurie suggest that Gort is associated with prosperity and growth, Nigel Pennick  contrarily reminds us that the Irish word Gorta means hunger or famine which seems to suggest that the letter has a potential dark or shadow side that needs to be considered as well.

Ivy sometimes takes the place of Holly in the battle with the Oak, but in other traditions, like the one of the Jack-in-the-Green-Chimney-Sweeper spoken of in James Frazer’s the Golden Bough, the ivy and the holly may be adversarial as well.

The ivy is associated with the fairy kingdom in many of the Irish folk tales – though usually indirectly. Its comparison with the snake links it with the image of the antlered Cernunnos, who holds the serpent in one hand and the torque in the other. Gort is also associated with the swan in the bird Ogham which is found in the Ogham Tract [iii].

The Trunk:

The ivy is sometimes associated with certain Celtic gods by various authors. There is little, if any, evidence of any of these relations to the gods or goddesses in any of the myths.

There is a trend that can be found in the folk stories of Ireland -as they pertain to the ivy plant- however.

Ivy is often described as being around, or surrounding, the entryways of caves or secret passages -and sometimes even hiding these doorways to the fairy kingdom from the outside world.

A prime example of this is found in the book the Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croften Croker published in 1825. Despite the misleading title – the stories take place more often outside of Ireland than in it – the account is of the finding of the Welsh hall of Owan (Owain) Lawgoch[iv].

There are other accounts of similar tales regarding Owain Lawgoch found elsewhere, but in this story the main character remains unnamed.  This “Welshman” finds a passageway that is obstructed with overgrown ivy. He moves the plant aside and enters the passageway out of curiosity and finds a tunnel that leads into a hall. As with all of the stories of Owain Lawgoch, this is the hall of sleeping warriors, and it is filled with either “one thousand” or a multitude – as in this story – of sleeping warriors in full battle dress. The intruder makes a noise accidently and wakes up the warriors from their slumber (in some stories he is taking gold) who then yell out, “Is it Day? Is it day?” as they rise to their feet. The quick witted Welshman then exclaims, “No, no, sleep again.” The warrior’s then go back to sleep and the man departs.

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to equate the fairy openings in the ground covered with ivy as having any significant meaning, simply from what could be mere descriptive filler. Though ivy is often mentioned around these caves or caverns this does not seem to be enough to be conclusive evidence that ivy is in fact tied to the Otherworld. The tale that does seem to lend itself to these observations, however, can be found in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland: Volume 1, by Lady Wilde published in 1902. These stories were collected mostly from oral sources. This one is called the Fairy Dance:

One evening in November, the prettiest girl in Ireland is walking to fetch water from a well. Near her destination she suddenly slips and falls. When she stands up again she finds that she is in an unfamiliar place. Nearby there is a fire with people around it so she decides to approach. When she moves into their company she notices that there is one particularly handsome golden haired man with a red sash. He looks at her with adoration, smiles, and asks her to dance. She says to him “There is no music” for she notices that there is no sound in which they can dance to. The man –smiling- then summons the music from an unknown realm and takes her hand in his to lead her in a dance. They dance throughout the evening in which time itself seems to be suspended. The man then asks her to have supper with all of them, the whole group, at which time she notices a stairway that leads beneath the ground.

The pretty girl then leaves with the handsome stranger and the rest of his company, descending into the earth. At the end of the stairs is a bright gold and silver hall with a lavish banquet laid out on a table. She then sits with all of the other people and prepares to eat. A man, one in which she had not previously noticed, whispers in her ear not to drink or eat. He warns her that if she does she will never be able to leave again. Taking this stranger’s advice she refuses to partake in the feast. A dark man from the group stands up and proclaims angrily that whoever comes into the hall must eat and drink. He then tries to force some wine down her throat by holding a cup to her lips.

A red haired man grabs the girl by the hand and leads her away quickly[v]. He places in her hand, “a branch of a plant called Athair Luss (the ground ivy)”. The red haired man tells her to take the branch and to hold it in her hand until she reaches home, that if she does so that no one will be able to harm her.

The whole time she flees, however, she can hear pursuers, even as she goes inside of her home and bars the door. The voices “clamour” loudly outside. They tell her that she will return to them just as soon as she dances again to the fairy music which “Did not leave her ears for a very long time”. She kept the magic branch safely, however, and the fairies never bothered her again[vi].

As a side note, it may be interesting to add that elsewhere in the same book the ivy plant is listed as one of the seven fairy herbs “of great value and power” along with vervain, eyebright, groundsel, foxglove, the bark of the elder tree and the young shoots of the hawthorn[vii].

It would seem that Ivy acts as some sort of a barrier, or gateway, between the worlds.

Although the appearance of Gort, or ivy, is not as overt as that of the more legend dominating trees such as the hazel or hawthorn, it does seem to speak to us from the other side, however.

If ivy is a force between the two worlds, or a doorway of sorts, then how can this symbol be interpreted when the plant itself is wound around another tree like a birch or a rowan, for example? It would seem that there is something for us to learn here, for it appears that the veil is thinner where Ivy grows. In dark garden and forest spaces where ivy seems to flourish the sense of the Otherworld is very strong.

These places, when found, are ones which I like to visit alone.

I will sit in that garden, that evergreen pasture of sweetness, and contemplate my own journey from this realm into the other and back again, through the mysteries of life and death, and as Stephanie and Philip Carr Gomm have said, into “the soul’s journey through the labyrinth.”

The search for self can often lead one into even more hidden realms and strange places.

The Foliage:

The search for self can be found at the core of many spiritual traditions.

The pagan paths are most often attractive to those who seek to know and understand themselves or their relationship to the natural world around them.

Doorways open, rationalizations are made, comparisons to previous learning’s reach out to grab the seeker by the hand, and eventually revelations – both great and small- come forth to reveal themselves to the awakened sleeper.

Who am I then, to criticize the way in which others see the world? Why is it that I am so frustrated by those who half-heartedly reach out to the Ogham as a tool of authority and teaching over the less knowledgeable? Should I not be simply happy that people, teachers if you will, share their personal revelations with others regarding the Ogham and how they see the world?

As I seek to learn who I am, I too have walked upon many paths. I have studied Christianity and been Christian, I have followed and continue to follow the ways of Bushido, and I have sang in the sweat lodge and even eaten the medicine in the church ceremonies in the desert of Arizona. I have sat crossed legged for many hours upon the ground -or upon wooden chairs- trying to learn to properly meditate and to run energy in the traditions many would call Eastern and some would call New Age. I have studied the bardic material of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and I have learned how to travel in the ways of the shaman. I have read the myths of many nations, the Quran, the Holy Bible, some of the Gitas, the Book of Changes, and many more. Perhaps I too can incorporate all of these paths and what I have learned together in my search for understanding and share them with the world? Should I then make my own Ogham associations to various traditions?

As I have shared before, I first found the Ogham around 1988. I have looked at this material for a very long time, and yet, I still do not see myself as an expert in any way. I have a problem at times identifying some of the trees – especially their wild North American counterparts, I do not speak old Irish, I have never been to Ireland, and I have yet to get a full academic degree which would give me some critical weight -which I would like to possess even for my own sense of self advancement.

Yet there are those that will sell the Ogham and the Celtic gods of old to anyone who will listen simply because they can. They do so because they think they can get away with it and they often do. They know almost nothing of the alphabet, even less about the culture, and clearly do not believe in what they profess to believe in.

In fact, it is apparent to me that they do not believe in those deities they profess to, or in the Ogham as a magical alphabet at all.

If I truly believed in a deity named Brigit I would not profess to another that this unknowable, mysterious, divine, mother was associated with unicorns or herbs from South East Asia when I am clearly the only person who believes this or has found some hidden text that states this. If I truly believed in the Ogham alphabet I would not add my own letters at my own convenience and claim that this was the way that they always were. I would not tell you that the sign of Virgo is such and such a tree and the rune of Tyr is directly related to another.

The Ogham exists within a cultural paradigm. That existence is in relation to the language and culture of the Celts, most especially to the Irish Celts. It is a mysterious and difficult alphabet to understand as there is very little record as to what it was truly used for and how it was used at all, despite various claims.

At one time the Celts were spread out over most of Europe and as far as Egypt. War and the advancement of other cultures leave today only six existing pockets of Celts[viii] and these are found in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. The greatest body of knowledge that was preserved regarding the Celts was that which was put to paper by the Irish monks.

The history of the Celts is long and bloody. It was not so long ago that the Irish were still being persecuted, and some would argue -with much validity- that they are still being persecuted today. This persecution took place after the Celtic tribes had already been wiped off of the face of the Earth, one after another, by Rome and various later conquerors. This was even after the religion of the Celts was Christianized and later bled out of the people during the witch trials and the religious killings –murders- throughout Europe during the so called religious movements.

The conquest of Ireland by the English had killed over one third of the population of the country. In May of 1654 the remaining Irish were moved to reservations and were only allowed on the West side of the River Shannon. Any Irish found to the East was killed as a rebel and 5 pounds was paid for their head. Irish villages were surrounded and people were gathered up and sent to colonies as labour because they were “cheaper than slaves if they died[ix]”.

Many Irish fled starvation – the price of being over taxed now remembered as a famine- to the Americas to start a new life. Here they were given no quarter either. Beyond overt racism, many of the original penitentiaries in North America, especially those in Canada, were built for the Irish problem[x].

In Ireland there was rarely any peace either. The people often rose up against oppression and struggled for independence. There is much history of civil war, famine, oppression and bloodshed on the Emerald Isle.

The Irish books were burnt first by St. Patrick -in at least one account- and regularly afterwards by various suppressors until relatively recent times. The culture itself was the sufferer of the deliberate persecution of one race that was seen as inferior by another that saw itself as superior. According to Peter Ellis, “Language is the highest form of cultural expression. The decline of the Celtic languages has been the result of a carefully established policy of brutal persecution and suppression…the result of centuries of a careful policy of ethnocide.[xi]

For many of us, studying things Celtic offers us insight into a relatively recent ancestor that was still in touch with -and lived in close relation to- the earth. The memories of these ancestors can be gleamed through the veil of time, for but a moment, as we look over the myths and legends that show us who they were and who they may have been.

The Ogham alphabet, particularly the tree alphabet, offers the seeker a chance to investigate a system that is at once both mysterious and insightful. The Ogham leads us into the realm of myth and stretches our imagination. It can be found to be logical and mathematical, and has led more than one person into a deeper relationship with nature and the many mysteries that she has to offer. The Ogham can teach us about the Celtic ancestors, about a culture that has almost been lost to history in so many ways, and it may even be used – as it is by many – as a type of resurgent divination.

If one is a spiritual seeker then the Ogham may even bring them into a deeper relationship with the deities, the divine, and ultimately even with themself.

In our search for truth and understanding, let us not forget to leave the trail through the forest in a way in which we found it.

Ancient, powerful, and wise.

Awen.

“I was raised in an Irish-American home in Detroit where assimilation was the uppermost priority. The price of assimilation and respectability was amnesia. Although my great-grandparents were victims of the Great Hunger of the 1840’s, even though I was named Thomas Emmet Hayden IV after the radical Irish nationalist exile Thomas Emmet, my inheritance was to be disinherited. My parents knew nothing of this past, or nothing worth passing on.” -Tom Hayden


[I] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[II] The Druid Animal Oracle.

[III] Ibid.

[IV] An ancient ruler of Britain. This story has a familiar looking theme.

[V]  It is implied that the red haired man is the same man that warned her earlier but this is not stated in the tale.

[VI] This story is reminiscent of the Anne Jefferies story previously shared in the Huath (Hawthorn) post.

[VII] This book is of great interest and contains lore along with folk charms and spells. The copy I have acquired is from the link below. It is free to download because it’s no longer in copyright  http://www.archive.org/details/ancientlegendsm01wildgoog

[VIII] Usually recognized

[IX] Peter Berresford Ellis

[X] “Recently arrived immigrants were perceived as a threat -as having suspect values and a poorer work ethic.” Canadian Corrections: 3rd Edition. Curt Griffiths

[XI] The Druids

Tinne (Holly)

“Salvation, claimed the Romantic philosophers and writers, lay not in a tame and planted landscape, but in the raw wilderness.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce).

The Roots:

The holly – much like the oak- is associated with gods of lightening and thunder, male virility and war.

Robert Graves says that the oak and the holly are “twin brothers”. The two tree’s symbolic meanings seem to verify this.

Pennick equates Tinne with fatherhood, balance and strength. Liz and Colin Murray list holly’s attributes as those of the warrior and of balance. John Michael Greer calls holly the tree of courage and of challenges.

Over time the holly has come to be associated with Christ and Christmas. The red berries supposedly replicated the blood of the Christ and the holly leaf came to be seen as representing the crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion. Traditionally the Winter Solstice was the time that the holly king was killed, destined to rise again, by the oak king. The early church carefully selected pagan dates of celebration as a time to introduce Christian themes, and so the holly became a Christmas symbol to this day[i].

Erynn Rowan Laurie states that the energy of Tinne can be linked to wealth, craftsmanship, and the arts. She also informs us that the holly tree has associations with severed heads and is strongly connected to the Celtic warrior.

The Trunk:

As we celebrate the Summer Solstice we are reminded that even though the warm days are just beginning, the Earth is now starting to move further away from the Sun, heralding the return of winter.

Frazer describes in great detail the death of the “Oak King” in the Golden Bough. It is the Oak King that is killed, or sacrificed, at this time of the year by the Holly King, only to return again during the Winter Solstice -when the roles are reversed- to kill the Holly King once more in an endless cycle that mirrors the rhythms of the earth.

This cycle is often linked to the Goddess Creiddylad – mentioned briefly in the Mabinogion – as representing the Earth Goddess that the two suitors are fighting and dying for. The Oak King is the god of the sky and of light while the Holly King represents the time of darkness and of the underworld. Creiddylad spends half of the year with one king, and half of the year with the other. Human sacrifices were believed to be used to help promote these yearly cycles and to appease the spirits of the land[ii].

As stated above, Laurie associates holly to the severed head, taking the symbolism beyond that of just the warrior or the Holly King. The severed head, according to Celtic historian Anne Ross, was a religious symbol, “as representative of the Celts’ spirituality as the sign of the cross is for Christianity.”[iii]

The severed head is incredibly prevalent in Celtic symbolism and myth. Some even go so far as to refer to the Celts spirituality as “the cult of the severed head.” As Caitlin Mathews explains in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom[iv] however, the Celts did not worship severed heads per say, but venerated the head as “the seat of wisdom and of the soul”.

(Skull on a gravestone edge, Durisdeer, Scotland)

The symbol of the severed head, or the sacrifice of the Oak King to the Holly King, may seem a little brutal to us in this day and age, but do these core elements of the old legends still have a place? Certainly we do not want to see human or animal sacrifices return in any way shape or form but perhaps there is an alternative. Maybe the symbols of the brutal and bloody ways of our ancestors can offer us some wisdom that is still relevant today?

One does not have to look very far to find that the Celts did in fact hold many things that we would find dark or disturbing quite sacred. These myths bring us time and time again to war, hunting, trickery through magic, death, the severing of heads, dark supernatural beings, deception, and as we have seen before… even rape, adultery and murder.

While it is true that our ancestors also held many things that are beautiful and peaceful sacred, why is it that so many pagans in modern times cling to these imbalanced ideas alone and ignore the darker aspects found in the wealth of the lore?

The Ogham at its surface seems incredibly charming, but once the forest – the actual woods – is entered there are many things that can no longer be seen as fluffy, soft, and harmless. The sun is not always shining. It is not always summer or spring. The creatures of the forest, including ourselves, are not always well fed or content. When we are not freezing we are dripping with sweat, or at the very least we are covered in insects that like to bite us and steal our sustenance, making us weaker – a part of the cycle of life and death. Our ancestors did not harbour any illusions as to the brutality that could be found in nature.

The Celts did not worship from a city park or an English garden. They did not see fairies as cute little Barbie dolls that fit inside of their palms like some sort of child’s toy[v]. They saw nature for what it was, for what she still is, and were rewarded by stepping into relationship with the very land.

By downplaying that relationship – by ignoring an exploration of the rougher side of nature – we allow ourselves to shrink back from our own power and capabilities. We can safely summon the elements by facing different directions within the sterile confines of our homes but do we really know the elements? You can call fire… but can you make fire? I am not asking about the fire that is made with matches or a lighter but from the friction of moving two sticks together or with a bow? You can summon the element of water but can you take water from the land or capture it from the air in times of need – for that is life itself? Can you work with the earth and make things grow? Can you hear the wind speaking that whispers through the leaves in the trees or let the stars navigate you through the darkness to safety?

I have said it before. The forest can be a very dangerous place. If you have spent time alone in the woods, in a real forest, you have learned to have a healthy respect for it. People die each year going into those very lands that tens of thousand of people profess to be the bosom of the Great Goddess herself. People yearly -in North America alone- fall to their death, starve, dehydrate, freeze, get heat exposure, suffer sprains and breaks, get lost, catch diseases from insects (West Nile, Lime Disease etc), are hunted and sometimes killed by animals (especially bears or cougars), drown by slipping into rivers and sometimes just plain disappear.

By seeing Nature in all of her terrible beauty we can truly step from infatuation into relationship, for to not be able to view her completely is to not see her at all. Until then it is just make believe. An ignorant relationship disconnected from the divine in all of her glory, and ultimately with the divine within you.

If you choose to step into relationship -away from infatuation- with Nature herself then Tinne, the holly, can be your guide.

The Foliage:

The holly is the first tree of the Ogham that does not grow naturally in most areas of Western North America.

No matter where one lives, even if it be on Ireland herself, there will be places in which some of the trees of the Ogham do not grow.

Apparently there are holly farms in British Columbia[vi] but I have never set foot on, or even seen one myself. BC is, after all, a very large place. There are many holly trees growing along the streets in Vancouver -where I live- and I have even found a beautiful specimen in a park in the West End beside a yew tree and close to a magnificent oak[vii]. I have also found a naturalized tree – though stunted as it competes with mighty conifers for light- with a couple of saplings nearby at the trail head to Tower Beach near the University of British Columbia (within two weeks of posting this I had found two different sites of naturalized trees in the Vancouver area).

No matter how hard I look however, I will never find a forest of holly trees in my neighbourhood.

This should not discourage me.

Laurie cites this as one of the main reasons that the Ogham should be viewed as more akin to the Nordic Runes as opposed to a “tree alphabet”. She says that instead of modifying the list in some way to make it local or relevant she has, “Chosen to work primarily with the name-meanings and with the phrases or kennings associated with each ogam fid (letter), rather than the trees themselves.” Laurie encourages that we can carry concepts with us and that we are not necessarily tied down to, “one geographical area” that we may feel limited to while working with trees that are absent.

I like to work with the Ogham as a tree alphabet, however. For me it makes sense. I can go and sit beneath a holly tree, I can read about it, and I will likely even dream of it. If the gods are willing, perhaps one day, I will even get a chance to walk through a forest where the holly is still king.

Even in my home town where the winters would kill most attempts at growing holly, I could get a cutting from a floral shop during the Christmas season to work with. After all, the alder and the willow there in Northern Saskatchewan are -like the hawthorn here -more like shrubs than trees but I can connect with them still nonetheless. While a clipping is not even close to the same thing as a shrub, perhaps it too is somewhat of a start.

I believe that the trees of the Ogham are representatives of all trees and of all plants, much like the Celtic legends are representative of the life lessons found in all cultures[viii]. As most teachers of various practices will tell you, you can dig many holes upon the land or one deep well in which to draw water.

For me, the Ogham is that well, the tree alphabet works, and I like the difficult journey that sometimes leads me to new places and kingdoms in search of greater knowledge.

Trees are something I can touch and marvel over, and they never cease to amaze me.

Today for example – to celebrate the beginning of the half-year where the holly is king-I drank my first yerba mate. It was smooth and foreign but I enjoyed the tea’s earthy undertones that existed within the spicy chai version that I sipped upon. I was shocked to find out that yerba mate, which is made from a type of holly leaf of course, had been called by many indigenous South Americans as “the drink of the gods”. The list of known and suspected health benefits was staggering as it stood even a head taller than green tea[ix].

As I drank the tea that was a gift from the holly, I could not help but smile knowing that science had confirmed what those South American natives seemed to have known all along.

I then stepped into a place where Tinne, the holly, had become king once more.

“To know, to truly know the forest is to love it, and whoever loves it will fight for its welfare. Therefore we invite all to spend great amounts of time in the woods, doing nothing in particular but wandering about or just sitting still.” – Steve Comar, Mahican Nation (Canadian Geographic June 2010)[x]


[i] Paterson, Hageneder, Farmer-Knowles, and Cooper.

[ii] This connection is made by many such as Hageneder but does not seem to appear directly in legend.

[iii] Fire in the Head.

[iv] Chapter 4, section 3 – Consulting the Ancestors.

[v] For a fascinating conversation on this very subject please listen to Elemental Castings podcast episode 12 between T. Thorn Coyle and R.J. Stewart where they compare the minimizing of the fairy kingdom to the minimizing of the power that exists within ourselves.

[vi] http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/holly.htm

[vii] Alexandra Park.

[viii] Joseph Campbell.

[ix] 2010 Teaopia magazine/brochure

[x] Get in the Grove article text quotations from Ontario’s Old Growth Forests: A Guidebook Complete with History, Ecology, and Maps by Michael Henry and Peter Quinby (2009)

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